After two indictments in less than a year accusing border lawmakers of crimes, members of the Rio Grande Valley delegation are bracing for a backlash. They are quick to point out that corruption thrives well beyond the border, however, and say the search for a whipping boy should expand statewide.
State Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra, D-South Padre Island, was indicted last week on charges she engaged in Medicaid fraud in the course of her work as a dentist and accepted thousands of dollars in kickbacks. She has maintained her innocence since her arrest. The allegations come less than a year after state Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview, was indicted by a Travis County grand jury on charges of failing to properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal income. Neither Flores nor Rios Ybarra returned calls seeking comment.
Rios Ybarra lost her re-election bid to Kingsville businessman J.M. Lozano in the March 2 primary — before the allegations against her became public — and Flores decided not to seek re-election after his indictment. Despite their planned exits from the Texas House, their colleagues acknowledge that the pair’s current legal woes could reinforce the stereotype of a delegation that serves an area often associated with “patrón” politics.
“The border long ago was tarnished with the reputation for corruption. It's sad that this may reaffirm that image,” says state Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg. “But I would rather focus on the thousands of good public servants who honestly sacrifice their time in service to our community.”
Peña and others acknowledge the border has long been an easy target for those seeking an examples of corruption; they return the favor by pointing out other examples across the state and nation. “Ethics in government is a national concern — from Nevada to North Carolina, most recently — and the Valley has unfortunately had its share of headlines,” says state Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen. But she too sounds prepared for a backlash, which she admits could be another hurdle as the South Texas delegation and the rest of the House Democrats prepare for a session in which voter ID, redistricting and a multibillion budget shortfall could heighten tensions.
“The declining levels of trust, frankly, make it more difficult to tackle the many daunting issues we face," Gonzales says. "I hope Reps. Flores and Rios Ybarra do everything in their power to help clear their names as quickly as possible and cooperate with authorities so we can get back to gaining the kind of confidence we need in our system to effectively address the budgetary, educational and security challenges we face.”
Peña concedes that the border, specifically the Rio Grande Valley, has such a culture of government mistrust that corruption is often alleged. Accusations of politicians strong-arming voters and labels like “hand-picked successor" are tossed around freely, leaving the impression that elections are fixed. But Peña says those problems are not limited to a region, a party or to areas like the Valley with high concentrations of poor and minority voters. “This is a problem for all politicians, and it’s not hard for people reading this article to quickly name people in their own community," he says. "So I don’t think race or ethnicity has anything to do with it.”
The revelations about Rios Ybarra might embolden Republicans hoping to capitalize on the Democrats' disgrace, but the irony is that she enjoyed strong GOP support, says Cameron County Democratic Party Chair Gilbert Hinojosa. Even in her recent loss, she won 58 percent of the vote in that county, which is what passes for a Republican stronghold in South Texas.
“The main base of support for the Republicans in Cameron County are [South Padre] Island and in Harlingen," Hinojosa says. "Tara is a product of the island." It was GOP support that catapulted Rios Ybarra to her seat on the South Padre City Council, he notes, and she received hefty campaign contributions from groups generally known as Republican supporters. And the type of allegations against Rios Ybarra aren’t part of a pattern in the area. “She’s just a doctor that’s been charged under the Medicaid regulations," he says.
Lawmakers and elected officials from the border to the Texas plains have been accused and convicted on various charges, Hinojosa maintains. “Look at the [U.S.] House Majority Leader six years ago, Tom DeLay. He's currently under indictment in Austin. He’s not from the border,” he says.
Another example is former state Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, who recently began a 12-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to charges that she lied on her tax return.